Review: DOCTOR WHO S8E06, THE CARETAKER (Or, The Doctor Goes Undercover)
Now this is much more like it. "The Caretaker" is a considered and nuanced episode of Doctor Who that still manages to be great fun. It handles the complex relationships and emotions that are driving the show rather deftly, and it's delightfully light on its feet as it dances between the more playful and more serious tones that are being put forward in Series 8.
The plot finds the Doctor going undercover, as the titular caretaker, at Clara's school after we see a montage of their recent adventures and how they've interfered with her blossoming new romance (some of these adventures sound fun, but they're probably the sort of thing that wouldn't sustain an episode). The scenario is rather perfect for comedic shenanigans because Clara's trying to conceal the true nature of her relationship with the Doctor. Perhaps surprisingly, Gareth Roberts' and Steven Moffat's script is able to explore how such realisations affect everyone in such a way that we learn more about them as people.
The presence of a ruthless killing alien machine is the sort of thing that is only tangentially related to what gives this episode its boundless energy. It uses the threatening plot device as an engine for character development, and does so remarkably successfully. Placing Danny in a situation to learn who the Doctor is would usually be the prelude to him accompanying the Time Lord and Clara on their excursions, but it wouldn't make sense with what we know about Danny so far. His immediate reaction of fear and an instinct to protect his girlfriend makes much more sense. He's not so easily convinced of the Doctor's greatness, likening him to an intimidating superior officer, and it's a refreshing change to see somebody deal with the Doctor like this (even if Danny does still have a major part to play in saving the world).
It's similarly interesting to see the Doctor's skeptical reaction to Danny, and how he devalues him simply because he's a soldier. This is really true to how the Doctor has reacted to the military in the past, especially in the second episode of this series, "Into the Dalek". Perhaps the most compelling question levelled at a character, though, is when Danny questions why Clara travels with the Doctor at all. There's a way of making him the 'jealous boyfriend' in such an exchange that the show smartly avoids. It finds a way for him to question both why she'd put herself in such danger without question and why she feels unable to share her "amazing" experiences with him. Much of this is material I was unsure the show would deliver with such thoughtfulness, it's impressive and compelling to see it done this well. The quiet conversations between Clara and Danny are gripping, as is Danny's outburst in the presence of the Doctor.
And, ultimately, this is exactly the kind of fun Doctor Who should strive to be. I can't stand the derivative dullness of "Time Heist" or the unimaginative plodding of "Robot of Sherwood", but "The Caretaker" feels fresh and lively. There's a wonderful sense of excitement here, and Peter Capaldi's really convincing as a Doctor who truly wants to be good but can't help being abrasive and angry. There are still troubling elements of the character (like how he seems to struggle to treat Clara with any respect in many situations) but there's nothing wrong with Capaldi's cool and confident portrayal of him. Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson are also really impressive here, as Doctor Who manages to whip up an episode that balances real sci-fi suspense with a great sense of pacing and a complex exploration of the interpersonal dynamics between the key characters.